Industry view: It pays to be flexible

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By Clare Scott, parenting and lifestyle blogger

From June 30 last year all employees received the legal right to request flexible working; a right hitherto reserved for parents or carers. But what does flexible working really mean?

A broad-based definition on www.gov.uk describes it as a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, e.g. having flexible start and finish times, or working from home. In practice many variations of flexible working arrangements exist. These range from the compressed nine-day fortnight to working a pre-arranged number of hours over a set period of time from a location to suit.

Flexible working certainly has much to recommend it – for both the individual and the employer. For many of us, the quest to find that elusive work/life balance is ongoing. It is therefore encouraging that the latest legislation attempts to make that goal more accessible.

Clare Scott

A Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) report, sponsored by Vodafone in 2013, highlights many of the widely acknowledged advantages of flexible working.
For the employee, these include improved motivation and productivity levels, health and wellbeing benefits, and financial and time efficiencies. Flexible working allows individuals to adjust their work patterns to tackle jobs at a time that suits them best.

They may simply be a ‘morning person’, or they may need to accommodate family or external interests. If the flexible arrangement includes working from home – or perhaps from a nearby satellite office - there are obvious commuting cost, time and environmental savings.

Naturally, many of these benefits make sense for employers too. Which organisation doesn’t strive for happy and productive workers? The RSA report goes still further, enumerating an increase in productivity of 5.1 hours per week per employee along with a significant correlation between better use of skills and flexibility. In today’s 24-hour culture – and for companies who operate globally – there may also be significant advantages to a flexible workforce, whose combined efforts span extended shifts.

Less measurable, but instrumental to staff recruitment, is the perception of organisations who embrace flexible working as more innovative and forward-thinking.

What about the downsides? Undoubtedly some business activities lend themselves better to flexible working than others. Certain jobs can’t be performed remotely due to a requirement for specialist equipment or interaction with others. On this latter point, it is generally recommended that homeworkers maintain some face-to-face interaction with colleagues. This ensures they remain abreast of organisational developments and continue to feel part of the team.

It would also be naive to dismiss the organisational challenges associated with implementing flexible work schedules. Appropriate flexible working procedures and eligibility criteria must be clearly communicated to staff. Ongoing measurement and evaluation is essential to ensure any new arrangements make business sense.

2014’s legislation provided all employees with the right to request flexible working. Of course this does not mean that employers are duty-bound to grant all such requests. Talent retention remains a hot topic, however, and enlightened organisations will recognise the positive contribution that flexible working can make to staff turnover. When introduced in the right business context – and assuming both sides have a clear understanding of expectations – the case for flexible working is a strong one.

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